Tips for a newbie convention delegate to not seem like a newbie?
April 15, 2009 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Tips for a newbie delegate to a political convention? I agreed to act not only as a Democrat delegate but as a vice-chair for my precinct. Our county organizing convention is coming up this weekend. I've read a tiny bit about what to expect on the agenda (but not a lot), but am more worried about just seeming out of place. I'm young, don't have a lot of political experience, and also had to change my affiliation from unaffiliated to do this. Part of me says that in a state where Democrats are a minority no one will be judging me for wanting to serve, but what can you tell me (or links can you give me...) to better prepare me? I'm looking for both what I should know about how it'll run and the more nuanced aspects of interaction/networking/flow.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First, you're a Democratic delegate, not a Democrat delegate. Pretty big distinction.
posted by downing street memo at 1:54 PM on April 15, 2009

I'm the kind of person who really thinks conventions are fun, and I look forward to "convention season" every year. Think of them this way- it's an opportunity to be in a room with a whole bunch of people who share your political values and beliefs, and to participate in a really basic function of democracy. Conventions vary from state to state, county to county, and city to city, but every one I've been to (either as a delegate or a worker) has generally had the same format:

First, you have to check in at the Credentials Table. This is so the folks running the convention know who's there and are able seat the appropriate delegates. You'll get a little name badge that you'll have to show to the Sergeant-at-Arms (who, in my experience, is either a high-school kid dragged along by his or her parents or an octogenarian who's nice and chatty) every time you want to go onto the convention floor. These credentials

When you enter the convention hall, there'll be a convener at the front of the room at some kind of podium with mic, and he or she will call the convention to order. You'll say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then there will be some announcements (about bathrooms and food vending and whatnot). Most of the time the convener will apply Robert's Rules of Order, so there will be a lot of motions and seconds and that kind of stuff.

Typically, right at the beginning, there's a discussion of the rules and agenda- at contentious conventions, those discussions can go on and on and on, because candidates and people who are pushing resolutions want to use them to their advantage.

Then the real work of the convention gets going: candidates get nominated and voted on, resolutions get discussed and voted on, and party unit officers get elected. If there's another, higher level of convention, the convention will select delegates to the next level. Try for one of those delegate spots, too.

Here are some tips off the top of my head:

* Political conventions vacillate between really fun and really boring, so bring a newspaper or magazine to read.
* Chat up the old-timers. One, they love to talk and tell war stories, and two, they're full of advice.
* Get involved! Join an ad hoc committee or an organizing committee for the next convention. You'll meet interesting, like-minded people who share your community.
* Ask questions and meet people- you'll find that people in your neighborhood and community are looking to develop your talents as a political leader, and will enjoy helping you.
* Stick around and help with the clean up. When you're helping an candidate rip down his or her convention posters, you can really get the inside scoop.

Seriously- I initially got involved in politics because I took one small step forward by going to my local precinct caucuses and volunteering to be a precinct chair. It's been a super-fun ride since then. Feel to mefi mail me if you have other questions!
posted by elmer benson at 2:58 PM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I haven't been directly involved with anything quite like this, but I have a pretty good idea of what you'll see.

You'll find a few egos walking around, thinking their (largely artificial) power qualifies them to a cabinet appointment, but you'll mostly find a lot of well-intentioned, dedicated activists who are going to be thrilled to have you. Honestly, I wouldn't worry too much. Most of the people there tend to admire young people at events like this, particularly earnest ones like you.

There's probably going to be some procedural stuff that happens -- motions to be filed, seconded, etc -- but a lot of it will be a platform for local dignitaries to get up and speak (probably at a bad chicken dinner event of some type). Not sure if you have any caucuses or something similar, but those sub-meetings tend to be a little more focused, and can actually have some drama (again, largely artificial). If there's a contested race for chair or some hotly-debated motion, take your time and don't be overwhelmed by the process or people involved.

There's almost a guarantee that a sweet older person will be in attendance -- likely covered in buttons and stickers of some type, and it will likely be their 30th year doing this -- who would make a great mentor your first time around. It may be smart to ease into a conversation and mention that it's your first convention to a few people. I think you'll be surprised how happy/proud people are, and how much they'll want to help you out.

That said, every state and county is different, but I really wouldn't sweat it. I could be 100% wrong about all of this, so take that into account, but I'm betting you'll see something close.
posted by joshmcconaha at 3:01 PM on April 15, 2009

elmer benson laid it out pretty well. I can't say I remember with clarity the County Democratic Convention I was a part of in 2004 because as it happened in that year I got nominated to go to the State and eventually the National Convention. It was a busy year and the county convention kinda blurred into the rest.

I do recall the venue was a local school and meeting with a few State Senators and up and coming pols who were from my city. I recall it was rather dry except for some heated debates by the radicals over some platform issues. Basically a social event for middle aged people and seniors, with a small group of younger people and others that actually knew what was going on. In my case, as I was aiming to be a national delegate, the big event for me was getting my name pulled out of the hat to become a state delegates (lucky me).

I expect in non election year the convention will be much more of the nuts and bolts local politics, not a bunch of people griping about national politics. It will probably be a much smaller crowd than what I faced.

I will give these contextualizing remarks but YMMV:

I went to my county convention (and State, and National Convention for that matter) at the tender age of 19. I was big eyed and naive as hell. All I knew was that I was (and still am) a devoted Democrat and hated Bush (OK... I knew a bit more than that but not much). Even so everyone was very nice to me because A) they know that new blood and youth is key B) Its politics, even if they don't need you to vote for something they also don't want to make an enemy and would rather make a friend.

You said you were previously unaffiliated and that is great, but I would advise that you don't pick any fights until you know the lay of the land and make at least a few friends. Don't be bullied to support stuff you don't, but at the same time, it is probably best not to rock the boat. Know how the Status Quo is operating before you try to disrupt it, otherwise you are likely to just make a mess without making a difference.

Assuming you don't have an ax to grind, I am sure it will be quite easy to blend in and just soak up the experience. Precinct Vice Chair is great but in my county there were about 250 precincts. If you want you can probably just melt into the crowd, I doubt they will expect you to make a speech.

Also, in my county there was a precinct captain handbook (or some such thing). it was like 40 pages and I doubt anyone ever read it. It is probably available at your county democratic party homepage. You could probably impress people if you found and read the key parts out of that. And I am sure they have some sort of agenda for the convention.

And finally, my best advice is to make a friend with someone who has done this before, preferably someone in a position of authority. If they are worth their salt they would love to take someone under their wing. If you have a future in politics they will want to help you, otherwise good politicians are above all people persons. I probably never would have navigated my way to the DNC in Boston without the help of a State Vice Chair that I befriended.

You'll do fine, I'm sure the Democrats are in a great mood this year compared to 2004.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 3:41 PM on April 15, 2009

In Minnesota, a big feature of precinct caucuses is resolutions. People show up, introduce resolutions about issues of the day, the caucus votes on them. Approved resolutions get handed up to the next level (State Senate district convention, for example) where a committee meets to gather and coordinate them all, then a big sheaf of them gets handed out for that convention to vote on. Eventually it all gets put into the party platform. One anecdote that gets told a lot here is that supposedly the original idea for the Peace Corps came from a Minnesota precinct caucus resolution. (Not sure how 'legendary' that is, but it's a pretty story.)

Conventions at that level are a great way to meet local and even state pols. You can get interesting face time with county and state officeholders. People who want to run for governor or congress a year or two from now may be there at the very beginning of their campaigns. Some advocacy is okay, I mean, it's a political convention, that's why you're there. Got an issue with a highway project? Ask the county commissioner, he's right there. You'll want to be polite and constructive, but there won't be a problem: you'll know what tone to take just by watching other people around you.

Around here it's perfectly okay to support just about anybody within reason for a open seat. It's not okay to run against someone who has the party endorsement, and it's not okay to say that you want the party's endorsement, but you'll run in the primary even if you don't get it. It's sometimes okay to oppose an incumbent in your own party, but only if you've got a pretty good reason. And if nobody looks any good, you can vote 'no endorsement' and force a primary (possibly hoping that somebody better jumps in by then). The overall principle is fairly simple: if you're a politician asking the party for its endorsement, you need to respect the endorsement process, or else the party rank-and-file are going to get peeved at you.

Common rules here are that 60% of the floor has to vote for endorsement. You have to be on the floor to vote. Sergeants-at-arms will "freeze the floor" to prevent people from coming in late after the vote announcement. If a vote is pending, you have to be sure to work your bathroom/snack/smoke breaks around it or you'll be frozen out and miss it. Rules in your area may vary--for that matter, there are conditions for rules being changed or suspended. See Robert's Rules or sit next to a parliamentarian geek for more.

You might get a "moment of history" feeling if you're lucky. I still remember getting to hear Paul Wellstone address a high school auditorium full of people on a stuffy Saturday afternoon in 1990 when he was running for Senate. Uplifting and unforgettable.

At my last convention, I got to sit with a couple of old DFL veterans reminiscing about going to the 1968 Chicago convention. He was for Humphrey, she was for Eugene McCarthy. Good times.

Note that a lot of the talk here (particularly the fantastic contrib from elmer benson) is from Minnesota, where we have a pretty open political atmosphere with lots of easy participation. Atmosphere may vary in other states.

the Sergeant-at-Arms (who, in my experience, is either a high-school kid dragged along by his or her parents or an octogenarian who's nice and chatty)

The sergeants-at-arms at my last convention were big, imposing Teamsters volunteering on their day off, which was kind of cool.
posted by gimonca at 5:37 PM on April 15, 2009

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